I have to give you some background before I get to The Norman Conquests, currently in revival at the Circle in the Square, courtesy of the Old Vic Theatre Company in London. To do that, I ask you to return with me to 1974 when I divorced myself from the field of talent agents, where I’d toiled for some 21 years, to return to the stage as the actor I’d been in my teens and very early twenties. I’d had a role in Herzl on Broadway, but the big Broadway management team of Fryer and Carr was bringing Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests trilogy to New York after its triumph in London’s West End. British director Eric Thompson was coming along to stage the play with an American cast. Thompson had guided Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular to success in London and New York the season before. Now he was to tackle what looked like a sure thing, this major event of one-play-in-three that firmly established Alan Ayckbourn as a major 20th century playwright, one for the ages.
I had met Eric Thompson in London when he was about to cast Absurd Person Singular for New York. An ex-actor himself, he and I bonded at once, and before I left London he promised me an audition for one of the six roles as soon as he arrived in New York. He delivered, and as the producer wanted six stars, I was offered understudy. I’d have taken it but they wanted me to cover two of the three male roles, and I felt totally wrong for one of them, so I declined. But Eric remembered me, and the following year when I was back in London, he invited me to the Greenwich premieres of the trilogy The Norman Conquests. I only had one free day so I caught two of them, matinée and evening. The next morning Eric asked me if I thought I could play “Reg”, I said “Yes!”, and once again he promised to put me forward for it to Fryer and Carr. He didn’t know American actors, and thought I was up there in the same league as Richard Benjamin, Barry Nelson and Ken Howard. Wrong! So management said no, but this time Eric insisted I cover Barry Nelson as “Reg”, and as there were three plays to learn, he insisted there be only one stand-by for each role, and he left it to me to weed out the candidates for the other five covers. To make my role official, he put me into his own contract as his assistant director! Can you see why I loved this guy? When he returned to New York for final casting, he hired each of the five applicants I recommended, and we were all off to Los Angeles for four months, for that’s where the play(s) were to be tried out on their way to the Morosco on Broadway.
I never played Reg, but I rehearsed him (very pleasantly, for we were allowed to use the set to run the plays twice a week, and we were permitted to invite people to see us, so it felt as though we each of us had a ten month run, though only 2 of us actually went on for the stars we covered). This is a very long prologue, but it might let you know how fascinated and intrigued I was to attend a performance yesterday of Living Together one of the three plays that comprise The Norman Conquests, in their first New York appearances in 34 years.
This time, it took a total of twenty-four producers to bring them in! And, technically, they are all just mounting “The Old Vic Theatre Company” production that comes to us with its original London cast. But I put all that aside the moment I sat down at Circle in the Square, a theatre in the round in the midst of Manhattan’s theatre district. In its present configuration, it’s shaped like a football field, with an intriguing rendering of a small town village green on the playing field, which sits on top of the set. For our matinée, that set had all the elements of a living room minus the walls. For the rest of the trilogy, that set would be replaced by the dining room of the same house, and its adjacent garden area. As the lights dimmed, the village green rose into the flies, and we were in Mother’s Living Room, at 6:00 o’clock on a Saturday evening in July.
The three plays are set on a weekend between 5pm on Saturday and 9am on Monday. And they all occur at the same time, with the same six characters. Quite a feat, eh? How Mr. Ayckbourn accomplished it is beyond me, although he’s told us he put a chart in front of him and dashed the whole thing off in 4 days. His adroitness and mechanical abilities alone would entitle him to membership in the theatre’s hall of fame. But the remarkable thing is – the plays, in this brilliant production, smack much more of resonance and substance than of mere adroitness. I cannot wait to get back to see the rest of the trilogy, and I urge you to join me.
Though none of the actors is known on this side of the pond, you won’t find a cast more suited to this material anywhere in the world. There is something about Ayckbourn, universal as are his themes, so particular are his ear and his pen to the British middle class that I’ve never seen an American cast do justice to his work. I suppose there is some truth to the reverse of that – Neil Simon, for example, a playwright with a very American voice, does not play nearly as well in Britain with British casts. But many British playwrights do come to us successfully (Coward and Shaw certainly come to mind but they are writing about different sorts of mindsets and social strata.) Middle class attitudes, tensions, amusements vary so from nation to nation, and Alan Ayckbourn has nailed them for England. He might be called “the British A.R.Gurney”) but though Mr. Gurney is prolific and amusing, he doesn’t cut as deeply, perhaps because he too is dealing with an upper class and very shielded society. Mr. Ayckbourn’s people have viscera; once we cut through the laughter that protects them, we see and hear the despair.
With Neil Simon, it’s the one-liners that bring the boffo laughs. With Ayckbourn it’s the attitudes, the stage business. A stare would not seem a sure bet, “Aaah” is hardly a witty retort, “Ummmm” would not seem to be a guaranteed winner, but they all bring roars of unexpected laughter from a very gleeful house. Gestures, body English, insane use of hands and arms, even a kiss that misses its mark, all bring howls. And then there’s the subtext, visible under almost every word. Heavy stuff it is, and Matthew Warchus, whose direction scored beautifully in Boeing Boeing last season and in God of Carnage just weeks ago, with the aid of a resourceful and understanding cast, brings it all to the surface so that while we are laughing our sides off, we are almost ashamed, for the pain underneath these very average characters is so palpable.
You won’t know the actors in this ensemble, but they deserve mention. Amelia Bullmore as Norman’s beleaguered wife Ruth, Jessica Hynes as his sister-in-law Annie, with whom his plans for a “dirty weekend” cause havoc, Ben Miles as the clueless neighbor Tom who may or may not be Annie’s fiancé, Paul Ritter as Reg, the losing end of a pitched battle with wife Sarah, who is played with a combination of efficient domesticity and towering rage by Amanda Root, and of course the leader of the gang played by Stephen Mangan whose Norman is an infuriating/lovable adolescent/guru who really believes his mission in life is to make everyone happy, if only for moments at a time. I mean, these are important characters, as interesting in their complexity as anyone in Chekhov, and I never fully realized that until I saw this beautifully executed production. It resonates, and I am so grateful there is more to it than just one evening (though one evening is sufficient for you to appreciate it), for as any character leaves the living room in which I met them, he/she goes into the dining room or garden to continue what we would ordinarily have had to imagine. Sir Alan Ayckbourn does all the imagining for us, and I really do believe this one trilogy alone (he’s written over 70 plays!) will return again and again to remind us how foolishly we all behave as we play out the three acts of our own human comedy.
The Norman Conquests plays through July 25 at Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, NYC.
Eugene O’Neill’s human comedy was not a lot of laughs. He was 36 when he delivered Desire Under the Elms and that had to be a bad year for him, for everyone in the play is in a foul mood, and who can blame them? Ephraim Cabot, the father of three sons, is a distant cousin of James Tyrone, O’Neill’s characterization of his own father in his masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night. Cabot is angrier than Tyrone, and he’s found himself a sexy young bride to bring home to his New England farm, but it hasn’t brought him much inner calm. He’s still hateful to his sons, drives them like slaves, has them carting rocks around so he can fence in his farm with stone fences. Two of them revolt, and leave him. The third son, Eben, sticks around, for he’s not about to allow his new stepmother to inherit the farm to which he feels entitled. Then, to complicate matters, he begins to notice how attractive stepmom is and that leads to some pretty heated lovemaking as the thunder booms and the lightning flashes. Misunderstandings, reconciliations, a touch of murder, the intrusion of the law, end of play. If I seem a bit lighthearted about all this misery, it’s because it’s difficult to take the play seriously. Everyone is drawn in broad strokes; no back stories here, no nuance or subtlety, just a lot of unhappy people bound to each other and their lives of desperate frustration and no way out.
Robert Falls, who has had great success with star Brian Dennehy in Chicago in Long Day’s Journey and Death of a Salesman, both of which conquered Broadway as well, is once again at the helm with this Goodman Theatre production. His approach to this lesser play of O’Neill’s is stylistic and confusing. I don’t know why he abandoned all suggestion of elm trees, but opted instead to do Desire Under the Rocks. Walt Spangler’s set, effectively lit by Michael Philippi, stuns us as the curtain rises – huge boulders hang from the flies on thick ropes, dark mountains of rock are piled here and there about the empty stage (empty except for a wooden cottage, hanging in mid air, about to descend and house much of the action). At rise, two burly men are struggling to pull and push a dozen rocks on a flatboard to a place where they can unload them. The men are Simeon and Peter Cabot, two of Ephraim’s indentured sons. We next meet the lithe Eben Cabot, their young brother. Much awkward exposition follows in which we learn that Dad is returning soon with his bride, causing concern amongst the lads, for they know this woman must have married their father so she can have some financial security once he’s gone.
The play has been pruned and is here being played out in one act in 100 minutes. The power of the acting passes the time for us, and we are absorbed. But I didn’t really believe any of it, and I certainly felt compassion for no one. It is O’Neill, and as such I felt it was worth the visit and the time it took to view, but I won’t be needing a second look It ran 11 months in 1924 with Walter Huston and Mary Morris when lust in the dust must have been news. Karl Malden, Douglas Watson and Carol Stone played it on Broadway for a few performances in 1952, and now 57 years later here it is again, in this stark production which eliminates all the “Other Folk and Farmers.” Brian Dennehy plays on one note only, a very loud one. Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino make it clear there’s genuine passion in the rock quarry (or under the invisible elms) and she in particular creates a character, with little help from O’Neill, that is clearly motivated by desperation and ambition. She and Schreiber together create heat onstage, and their work is impressive. Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman are fine in the smaller roles of the brothers who have the good sense to flee. I guess someone will dredge up The Hairy Ape next season but I dunno – some things are better left resting quietly on a shelf. If you have archeological yearnings, have a look. If not, I’d suggest a good biography of O’Neill would nourish you more proficiently.
Desire Under the Elms plays thru July 5 at the St. James Theatre, 246 W 44th St, NYC.
A small footnote to a busy week for me. I visited the Chelsea Studios to see a reading of a new musical by young writers Larry Kaye, Eric Coble and composer Dan Kazemi. This work in progress, called The Tapioca Miracle, has attracted a number of prominent performers (Karen Ziemba, Brad Oscar, Annie Golden, Tony Award winning director John Rando, and a number of young producers who are involved in several other projects this season.) It’s an original idea which casts Ms. Ziemba as an apple pie Mom who discovers a religious face in her tapioca pudding one day. The show has the wacky irreverence of Bye Bye Birdie or The Drowsy Chaperone but needs a strong hand to finally shape it. There is promise here, and I mention it to you only because you might want to keep an eye open for it, as these are dedicated artists and I’d like to encourage them. We need bright new minds to keep the doors open for new material – enough already with the movies-turned-tuners (most recently 9 to 5, Cry Baby, The Wedding Singer). And we have revivals up the kazoo. With Tapioca Miracle, you feel you’ve not been there before, and that in itself is refreshing.
[DCTS has been following this musical since it’s first reading in Silver Spring, MD, in 2007. The photo shown here is from its MetroStage reading. Joel Markowitz is working on the 4th part of this continuing series, complete with interviews with producers and the director.]
Stay tuned and I’ll be bringing you news of Sophistry, Mary Stuart, The Singing Forest (with Olympia Dukakis at the Public) and Andrea Burns of In the Heights (another example of the new and the novel) strutting her stuff for one night only at Feinstein’s at the Regency.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: